The Best Course That I Never Taught: Heutagogy in Action

It was the best course that I never taught, heutagogy in action. One of the most important things that I can nurture in a learner is a growing sense of human agency. As such, a recent Twitter exchange promoted this article, an introduction to one of the courses that I most enjoyed teaching on the college level. Interestingly, it is a course that I did not really teach. I played an active role, but I didn’t teach it in the traditional sense of the word.

This post started with a brief Twitter exchange, a question from Franzi Ng (@DrFranzi) about heutagogy in higher education.

This brings me back several years. I taught in a graduate program in Educational Design & Technology. It is and has always been a largely applied and project-based program, with no traditional exams. Instead, students develop an impressive collection of artifacts that demonstrate their growing competence and confidence. While teaching in the program over almost a decade, a small number of students wanted to pursue independent studies to explore a topic of personal interest in greater depth. So, I decided to create a pair of courses that made this easier for students. One was called “Workshop in EDT” and the other “Readings in EDT.” The difference between the two was that “workshop” involved a modest review of the existing research/literature and a larger product or project. The other, “readings” was a larger literature review and a smaller project. However, for both of these courses, they had one core commonality. Instead of the professor independently creating the syllabus as a contract with the students, the student was given a template and asked to propose a syllabus to the professor, one that addresses six key questions. The student meets with the professor, shares a draft of the proposed syllabus, and the two of them refine it and agree upon a final version. Once it is finished, the course begins.

What were those six key elements required in the syllabus? They were largely the elements of any good self-directed learning project.

What is the question that will drive my inquiry?

This should be a compelling, provocative, deep, substantive question of personal interest and have the potential to provide some sort of valuable insight or transformation. As I explained to the learners, this was one of the most important elements of the course, and I refused to develop it for them. It has to come from the learner, from her passions and interests. It had to be something that she cared enough about to devote countless hours of thought and effort, and to persist in exploring even when temporary interest subsides. Find something that you believe in and makes a difference in your work or the world. This will be the question that will drive everything else that you pursue in this course.

Learners were introduced to your reminded about the power of double-loop learning. As such, it was not uncommon for a learner to revise or reframe the inquiry once started with the course. That is, in fact, a good sign that the student is developing an increasingly sophisticated or nuanced understanding of the exploration.

How will I pursue answers to this question?

Once you have a compelling question, now it is time to figure out how you will explore it. This involves a tentative list if suggested readings, field trips, experiments, informal or formal research projects, a review of existing research (I suggest starting with al list of 10 sold scholarly sources for “workshop” or 20 for “readings”.). This should also include a plan on how to start building a personal learning network around this question. How will you find, collect and collaborate with other people in the world who are passionate about the question, similar questions, or related themes?Note that this is a tentative plan.

As the learner started with the inquiry, it was quite common for to return revise it as the learning progressed. At the beginning, they might have a short list of resources and ideas, but as they started to explore valuable resources and connect with people, their awareness would inevitably expand, drawing them to new resources, connections, and activities. In fact, this was a sign that the learner was truly owning the process and, as with #1, discovering the power of double-loop learning.

How will I document my journey?

This should be in a form that the professor/coach can review at any point in the journey, and that will be updated at least twice a week. The student is encouraged to share it with others as well, devising plans to gain feedback from a variety of people. It might be in a wiki, blog, shared Google Doc, a YouTube video log, a shared Evernote folder or anything else. The purpose her is for the learner to show her work, use it for personal reflection and to establish important feedback loops throughout the learning experience.

What culminating product, project or performance will be the result of my work?

This might be a strategic plan, a curricular project, an open education resource, or anything else as long as it clearly and unquestionably displays a deep and substantive exploration of the central inquiry. At the end of the course, the student will have the opportunity to provide a public lecture or performance that includes this culminating work along with a personal reflection/commentary on this final work.

How will this enhance student learning, increase student engagement, and/or increase access and opportunity?

These were three core values of the graduate program, so everything that students did and learned was supposed to be connected to one of these three. The same was true for this project. Of course, these are broad enough themes that a creative self-directed learning could easily build a meaningful connection to at least one of them.

What is the tentative timeline for this journey?

How much time do you intend to devote to this inquiry? Because this was a credit-based course with regional accreditation, we expected students to devote 120-140 hours on this learning. This part of the plan was to map out how much time and when they expected to work on the project. In fact, I encouraged them to schedule it as they would a class or work schedule. Choose specific days and times of day. Of course, this is also tentative, but students were expected to formally revise this plan if it changed. It served as a useful time management and accountability tool for many. I also encouraged students to divide their work up into sprints, similar to what we see with agile software development. As the learner progresses through the course, this timeline/plan is represented in the #2, the documentation of the journey.

Then what?

Once the learner and I agreed upon a syllabus with these questions answered, now was time to get to work. The student and I would check in weekly or sometimes several times a week depending upon what the learner deemed most helpful. My job was largely that of encourager and a bit of a mirror or source of feedback. I asked questions more than anything else, helped the student with accessing University resources, sometimes suggested a name of a person or resource to explore, and occasionally brokered an introduction to a person or group. However, I was keenly aware that my talking or doing too much was a sign that something was not right. This was about the learner, about her learning journey, about growing in competence and confidence as a self-directed learner and as a growing scholar in the desired area of inquiry. Like a mirror, my job was only to draw attention back to the learner and the learning.

To this day, it was still one of the best courses that I never taught.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.